For the last four years, Highlands has taken on the Cincinnati St. Xavier Bombers in four-quarter scrimmages that see the reserves come into the game starting in the third quarter. Despite the 38-3 loss to the defending Ohio Division I state champs, Highlands gave plenty of reasons for people to believe things will be different this year coming off a 3-8 campaign a year ago.
The main lesson Highlands learned is to be more physical on both sides of the ball. The Bombers out-gained the Bluebirds, 399-147 in total offense in a battle of spread offenses. The Bombers ran the ball better gaining 151 yards on the ground and holding Highlands to minus-three. Offensively, the St. Xavier rushers found some creases to move the ball and closed the running lanes quickly on defense in their 3-3 stack scheme.
"We played hard and that was the key," said Brian Weinrich, Highlands Head Coach. "We made some mistakes in the first half. We were a little too cautious in the first half just trying to not make mistakes. We talked at halftime. Defensively, you can't play passive. You've got to let it go and the guys responded. It was a great scrimmage. I feel good about where we're at right now."
Senior Chase Wolf completed 14-of-16 passes for 209 yards and two touchdowns for the Bombers. Senior wide receiver Cam Specht caught six passes for 93 yards.
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"That wrinkle is something we don't do quite the same way offensively," Weinrich said. "That's not something we've seen all spring and all summer. We go into this game blind. We don't know what they're doing and how they're going to do it. That's one of those things you definitely have to game plan for. We just want our guys to react and respond to it and find a way to make it work. As the game went on, they got more comfortable seeing those kind of things and making adjustments on their own, which is what we wanted to see out of those guys."
Despite that, Highlands made a lot of plays in the St. Xavier backfield. Defensive linemen Ben Sisson, Zach Lewin and linebackers Alex Starkey, Gavin Downard and Crosley New had sacks or tackles for a loss.
"It's really gratifying," Sisson said. "We all put in a lot of work and it's starting to show. Those negative-yard plays really help out the defense. It puts (opponents) back and messes up their flow."
Highlands had to go to the air to move the ball, but could not make plays consistently to move the chains. Senior Carl Schoellman completed 13-of-30 passes for 146 yards including four to the electric senior wide receiver Nick Veneman for 44 yards. Veneman also returned the second-half kick-off back to the Bomber 42-yard-line.
"There were serveral things I was excited about," said Zach Deaton, Highlands Head Coach. "First, we knew what we were doing. We definitely have some guys that can run down the field and catch the ball. There's nothing like scrimmaging a team like that because it makes us better. We're going to watch film and see if we did everything exactly how we wanted to do it. Now, let's get it fixed because you know exactly what you did and did not do against a team like that when you play them. It's a matter of having confidence in what you're doing and executing it the best you can."
The Bluebird wide receivers did get past the St. Xavier defensive backs a number of times. Highlands earned several first downs on pass interference penalties.
"They were having to grab us because we were getting by them and that's very encouraging," Deaton said. "Instead of giving up the big play, they were holding on to us. We have to make a longer drive now. I think we're going to able to do lots of different things against lots of different teams with those guys out there running around."
The Highlands offensive line learned some lessons about the game of inches. Staying on blocks on pass plays for a few more seconds could be the difference between a long completion or a sack.
"We learned to not make the mistakes which led to them making tackles in the backfield," said Josh Homer, Highlands senior offensive linemen. "Every single thing matters. We're going to come back this week and get ready for Cooper. We're going to look at everything we did wrong and make it all right."
The Bombers scored quickly on their first drive. Senior Matthew Fox finished it with a one-yard run and Donny Stock kicked the extra point with 10:41 left in the first quarter.
Highlands scored its only points with 11:21 left in the first half. Nick Bowman booted a 32-yard field goal to trim the St. Xavier lead to 7-3. But Chase Wolf completed two touchdown passes in the second quarter to put the Bombers up 21-3. St. Xavier then outscored Highlands, 17-0 in the second half.
The Bluebirds had several players that did not play. That included junior quarterback/wide receiver Grady Cramer and sophomore linebacker Brycen Huddleston.
The Bluebirds travel to Cooper on Friday to open the regular season. Game time is 7:30 p.m.